Argument

The Only Way Out

There's just one way to get out of the ballot-stuffing mess of the Afghan election -- a runoff between Karzai and Abdullah.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

There are three things we know about Afghanistan’s unresolved election. First, it is now a two-man race between incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his former Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Second, voter turnout was quite low — perhaps as low as 30 percent. And third, there are widespread allegations of fraud — including numerous caught-red-handed videos of ballot-box stuffing, available on YouTube.

These last two facts have tainted the overall legitimacy of the process — potentially leading Afghanistan in an even more dangerous direction: Just as more U.S. forces pour into the country and fighting spikes over the summer, the Afghan population loses confidence in their government, in the post-Taliban political process, and, by extension, in the international community.

What is the way out of this mess? In short — a runoff election between Karzai and Abdullah.

On paper, the electoral process has yet to play out, making calls for a runoff sound perhaps premature. The Afghan Independent Electoral Commission has yet to release all of the election results. Eighteen days after the elections, and with 91 percent of polling stations reporting, Karzai is leading Abdullah 54 to 28 percent. Karzai needed to crack the 50 percent mark to avoid a runoff, and as returns have crept in, he has surpassed that goal. But there have been more than 2,000 complaints filed to another independent body, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). That commission, which has five commissioners — three of whom are international elections experts — has already stated that it deems at least 700 of these as potentially serious enough to affect the outcome.

There are reports of massive fraud emerging daily, including a New York Times article alleging that perhaps hundreds of thousands of votes were tainted. The ECC has announced that it would order recounts of all those polling stations nationwide with suspiciously high numbers of votes and where 95 percent or more are for one candidate alone. These complaints will take weeks to investigate under difficult and dangerous circumstances, and clear answers will likely elude investigators in many instances. Ultimately, with a close election, it may make the ECC’s call on whether to exclude some results the determining factor in the race. The ECC is a critical watchdog, but elections are best decided by voters and not commissions.

A runoff election may be the only way to restore the legitimacy of the democratic process at this point. As the allegations of fraud have mounted — backed with convincing evidence — over the last two weeks, the process has become irreparably tainted. A narrow Karzai win would be rejected by the opposition and millions of Afghans as having been wrongly procured. Even if Karzai won fair and square, it is almost impossible to imagine overcoming the presumption of guilt at this point. Afghans intensely watched the election saga in neighboring Iran, and went into this election with a heightened awareness of the potential and dangers of electoral fraud.

A runoff could even be a great shot in the arm for democratic politics in Afghanistan. The first round had 38 candidates for president, a short campaign period, and not a single debate between Karzai and Abdullah. A second round could be a real contest that could provoke a meaningful debate over the country’s future at a critical moment. It would also demonstrate that even a sitting president can be vulnerable, a first for Afghanistan, which might further strengthen confidence in the system.

A runoff election, however, carries risks and burdens of its own. Although better than the worst predictions, election day in Afghanistan this year was a violent affair. The decision to give the Taliban another chance to disrupt the polling should not be taken lightly. At the same time, the chance to demonstrate that the political calendar in Afghanistan is not held ransom by extremist violence could send a powerful message to the population.

There is also concern that a runoff between Karzai, a Pashtun leader, and Abdullah, who is part Tajik and part Pashtun (but strongly identified by his Tajik roots), could have a divisive effect on the country. It’s true that Afghanistan has never really dealt with the trauma from its civil war in the 1990s, which took on an increasingly ethnic character as the country devolved into a patchwork of warring fiefdoms. But in a multiethnic country like Afghanistan where no group is a majority, arguing that civil war will break out if a non-Pashtun wins the presidency is an even greater recipe for division than a hard-fought election between members of different ethnic groups.

What suggests the second round wouldn’t be as subject to fraud as the first round, skeptics might ask? Experience and pressure. The Electoral Complaints Commission and the international community will be able to much more effectively pinpoint problem areas for monitoring, and will immediately recognize the distinctive patterns of fraud from the first round. There should also be a move to remove some of those directly responsible for the fraud.

Additional safeguards can also be introduced — like parallel vote tabulation, where the total voters entering a single station are counted from outside to make sure ballot numbers going out match the number of bodies going into the precinct. U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders, and diplomats in Afghanistan must also make unrelenting statements that the world’s support for Afghanistan’s government depends on a cleaner second round.

As New York’s colorful former Governor Al Smith once suggested, the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Afghanistan’s grip on democracy remains shaky at best, but a wholesale abrogation of the basic premise that a majority of the people can choose (and reject) their leaders is likely to end the experiment for now, with untold consequences to come.

J Alexander Thier, the founder of Triple Helix, was the executive director of the Overseas Development Institute in London and was USAID’s chief of policy, planning, and learning from 2013 to 2015. He is writing in a personal capacity. Twitter: @Thieristan

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